Steak, chips and a glass of 1881 Lafite

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - In­dul­gence -

‘ IWOULDN’T rec­om­mend the chorizo-stuffed scal­lops,’’ waiter Lisa Shell tells us with dis­arm­ing hon­esty. I ask her if the chef knows she says that. ‘‘ Oh, yes, I’ve told him.

‘‘ I think the taste of the chorizo over­pow­ers the scal­lop, but he loves the dish. It’s up to you, but . . .’’

Shell is also the first waiter I’ve en­coun­tered who dis­cour­ages us from run­ning up the bill.

‘‘ The side por­tions are large, and there are a few lit­tle ex­tra nib­bles from the chef, so if you want to leave room for dessert — and, be­lieve me, you do— then I’d rec­om­mend or­der­ing a smaller por­tion of a bet­ter qual­ity steak rather than go for a large one,’’ she ex­plains.

We’re at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, and it’s like no other restau­rant I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced.

Sev­eral pages of the menu are given over to de­scrib­ing the dif­fer­ent cuts of meat, their var­i­ous flavours and tex­tures, and how they’re best pre­pared and cooked. The meats have been aged for five to eight weeks, the steaks are cut as they are or­dered and then cooked over a nat­u­ral wood char­coal grill.

But the most as­ton­ish­ing thing about Bern’s is not that it serves the finest steaks in the US— Florida has al­ways been prime cat­tle coun­try — but that it has the largest wine cel­lar in the world. Bern’s has a half mil­lion bot­tles, which is about 50,000 more than its near­est ri­val, La Tour d’Ar­gent in Paris.

As La Tour d’Ar­gent opened for busi­ness in 1582 in the cap­i­tal of the world’s great­est wine­mak­ing na­tion, and Bern’s dates back to just 1956 in a state not ex­actly known for its vin­tage wines, you have to raise a glass to the new­comer’s founder.

Bern Laxer (pic­tured) was a mis­sion­ary for wine. When he be­gan col­lect­ing in the 1960s, he toured France buy­ing up stocks of wine the av­er­age Amer­i­can wine drinker had never heard of, and to­day about 65 per cent of the list is still French. Laxer also be­lieved good wine should be af­ford­able, so the markups are low. There is no over­priced house wine: the cheap­est bot­tle on the list is $US14 ($15) and there are 200 wines by the glass, in­clud­ing a 1979 Cotes du Rhone for $US5.

Be­fore any­one sneers and says the US is about quan­tity and not qual­ity, bear in mind that there are also 38 vin­tages of Chateau Mou­tonRoth­schild, be­gin­ning with 1901, while the Chateau La­tour goes back to 1920 and the Chateau Lafite Roth­schild to 1881.

The old­est wine in the cel­lar is an 1802 madeira, and there are 300 madeiras, ports and sher­ries served by the glass.

‘‘ Peo­ple come from all over the world to sam­ple the wines,’’ Shell tells us, and a few min­utes later my ears prick up when I hear the con­ver­sa­tion at the next ta­ble where one of the three som­me­liers is tak­ing an or­der from a pair of French­men.

‘‘ Are you sure you want to drink a vin­tage so young?’’ he asks them. ‘‘ We do have them go­ing back to the 1980s, if you wanted to try one more ma­ture . . .

‘‘ I served a 1920 Chateau Mar­gaux last night. That’s a great vin­tage. Peo­ple think of 1928 and 1929 as great vin­tages, but that 1920 was also ex­cel­lent.’’

Our own foray into Bern’s list is more mod­est, as Shell sug­gests three glasses we might sam­ple to go with the dif­fer­ent cour­ses. None of them costs more than $US9 but they’re all won­der­ful wines and per­fect matches for the scal­lops (no chorizo) and the best steaks we’ve eaten. The steaks are so ten­der you could al­most pour them into a glass and drink them.

Bern’s serves 600 din­ers a night, 900 a night at week­ends, and about half of the din­ers choose to take the free guided tour of the kitchen and wine cel­lar af­ter their main course, as they make their way to the up­stairs dessert room.

The cel­lar is sur­pris­ingly small and non­de­script. Only 90,000 bot­tles are kept on the premises, the rest in three nearby ware­houses, and rows of wine bot­tles look like rows of wine bot­tles no mat­ter where you are. It’s just that Bern’s has got more of them than any­one else. The rare vin­tages are kept un­der lock and key with tight, 24-hour se­cu­rity.

‘‘ How can you serve so many wines by the glass? What equip­ment do you use to keep them fresh?’’ I ask our guide, Patrick Shell, who hap­pens to be our waiter’s hus­band. This is where they met, so there’s ro­mance, too, at Bern’s.

‘‘ We don’t use any spe­cial equip­ment,’ he tells us. ‘‘ It’s the sheer vol­ume of turnover. The bot­tles aren’t open long enough for the wine to de­te­ri­o­rate.’’

Just like home, then. And that’s what Bern’s feels like. Give or take a half mil­lion bot­tles of wine.


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